NEW ORLEANS — Growing up, Sam Williams was so tall he thought his future might include basketball — but an adolescent growth spurt instead helped make Big Sam a prominent purveyor of funky New Orleans music.
Williams is the front man for Big Sam’s Funky Nation, one of the city’s premier brass bands, which blends funk with ripples of rock and heavy metal that’s all flavored with the unique grooves of New Orleans. The band is among the featured acts Friday at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
In middle school, Williams said he grew larger than kids his own age but was too young to play against older students more his size. Being sidelined from the basketball court sent him looking for something else to occupy his time.
A chat with his school’s music teacher about the school’s marching band led to his first encounter with a trombone.
“I asked if I could join the band and the teacher asked me what I wanted to play. I said, ‘Where do you need me?’ and he said, ‘The trombone,’ and I said ‘What’s that?'” Williams recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
Most people don’t expect the trombone to be the star of the show, but Williams said ever since he picked it up it’s been his mission to change that.
“That’s been my objective from the start,” he said. “Back when I was at camp with people like Troy (Trombone Shorty) we always asked why can’t the trombone be out front and be loved as much as the guitar or the saxophone? We always said if we had anything to do with it, it was gonna get center stage, down front and they’re going to love it.”
And his fans sure do appreciate it.
Hundreds jammed the field in front of the festival’s Congo Square stage, rocking to their beats as he opened with the title cut from their latest project, “King of the Party.”
Williams, feet moving a la James Brown and urging the fans to “put your hands up,” later moved into a cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” which had the sea of people moving as one.
“They are amazing,” said Kristen Conklin, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. “You can’t stop dancing even if you tried.”
Vinnie Padalino, visiting the festival with Conklin, said jamming with Williams and the Nation is how he gets his spring training in.
“You know how ball players go down to Florida for spring workouts? I come to Louisiana for mine,” he said. “Sam really works the crowd.”
Williams’ high energy performance transfers onto his audience, said Peter Singer, a cookie maker from Bronx, N.Y. He said Williams and the band are true artists. “Watching them perform is like watching them create art right in front of you.”
Williams and the Nation — Andrew Baham on trumpet, Takeshi Shimmura on guitar, MILK on drums and Eric Vogel on bass — said they offer fans a “musical gumbo” of sound that includes traditions of New Orleans but stretched further.
“It’s heavy on the funk, but there’s also influences of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and a little bit of metal just to build it up,” he said. “But the New Orleans groove just touches your spirit and your soul. It does something to your insides and makes you lose control. It’s a groove that just grabs you.”
Now 29, Williams has been playing the festival for about 15 years either as part of Edward “Kidd” Jordan’s jazz camp, with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or on his own with the Nation.
He said he wouldn’t be the musician he is today had it not been for the influences of Jordan and his family, who taught him how to train his ear to hear chords, music theory and improvisation. He also credits teachings by legendary New Orleans trumpeter Clyde Kerr and Dirty Dozen trumpet player Efrem Thomas’ once-in-a-lifetime offer to join the band on tour.
“They made sure I was good,” he said.
Williams’ mother introduced him to the Dirty Dozen’s music when he was in the 10th grade. “Something clicked after hearing that music,” he said, “and I’ve been doing this ever since.”
He said Thomas’ offer to join the band happened when he was in college. “I jumped at the chance, but told him I had to ask my mother if it was OK,” he said. “I was just a kid, living at home. My mother didn’t want me to go. I was pulling a 4.0 in school and she didn’t want to disrupt that. But I told her I can always go back to school.
“I worshipped those cats,” he said. “There was no way I was missing that.”
Williams said that time with the Dirty Dozen was eye-opening. “It took me to a whole other level, musically and professionally,” he said.
His first gig with them, he said, was before 20,000 people in Keystone, Colo. Before that he was playing in small clubs in New Orleans and at festivals like jazz fest.
“It was scary, but exciting,” he said. “It’s a thrill when fans come up to you and say they love what you’re doing and excited about coming to see you do your thing.”
By: CHEVEL JOHNSON Associated Press